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Red, White, and Due: Talking Taxes

Featuring Vanessa Williamson

Why do people hate taxes but seem proud to pay them? When did taxation in the US become such a lightning rod issue? And are American feelings about taxes unique? Today Zachary and Emma talk to Vanessa Williamson, senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. The discussion weaves through taxation, redistribution, and political participation.

Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript

Vanessa Williamson: The views of people are often far more reasonable than the politics we get, and that is, on the one hand, very encouraging and optimistic. On the other hand, it asks us what do we need to do about our systems so that they can represent our people?

Zachary Karabell: What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the Founder of The Progress Network, joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the Executive Director of The Progress Network. And What Could Go Right? is our weekly podcast that we’ve been doing for not quite three years and is an adjunct to or combined with our weekly newsletter, which is also called What Could Go Right?, which you can get at and it is free. And interesting and illuminating and weekly and gives you a dose of things that are going on in the world that are pointing in a more positive direction for a collectively constructive future. We’re going to talk about something that affects all of our lives intimately that, weirdly enough, we don’t actually talk about enough, which is taxes.

Taxes in the United States. Why do we pay them? Should we pay them? Do we pay them? What are our attitudes towards them? And we’re going to take a deep dive. And I think some of what at least we will talk about and some of what our guests has found will surprise many of us who tend to have. a particularly negative experience of taxes and taxation.

So Emma, who are we going to talk to this week?

Emma Varvaloucas: Today, we’re going to talk to Vanessa Williamson. She’s a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution for Governance Studies, as well as the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, where she studies taxation, redistribution, and political participation. So as Zachary said, we’re going to talk to her about taxes today.

She wrote a book about this back in 2017 called ‘Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes’. She’s the author of other books, but we’re primarily going to talk about one of the two things that are certain in life. That’s taxes. Not going to talk about death. So we’re not that negative.

Zachary Karabell: Different episode.

We’ll do another episode. Yeah. All right. Let’s do it.

Emma Varvaloucas: All right.

Zachary Karabell: Vanessa Williamson, a pleasure to have you with us today. You’ve done some really cool work over the past years about Americans and taxes. You’ve done. Other work too, which we can certainly touch on, but given that there is such a popular cultural perception of UGG taxes, or what can I do, you know, for the wealthy, like what can I do to pay less taxes or avoid taxes or hide my money from taxes?

And certainly in an election year, where the kind of common understanding of the two parties, in part, I think remains relatively unchanged over the past 40 years, right? Democrats want higher taxes and more government and Republicans want lower taxes and less government. That’s just the popular trope, not actually commenting on whether that’s a fair one or not.

But you wrote and have done a lot of work actually looking at the way most people think about actually paying taxes versus this trope. And you’ve come up with a rather different. Set of observations. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about what those are?

Vanessa Williamson: Americans are actually remarkably proud to pay taxes and this is a fighting that’s really consistent over a very long period, 40 years of survey data, and it, it doesn’t really matter how you ask the question, if you ask people, for example.

Do they think that it is every American civic duty to pay their fair share of taxes? You get a level of agreement that is almost unheard of. It’s 90 plus percent, sometimes as high as 95. I looked into survey data to try and find other questions where you get 95 percent of Americans agreeing and you have to ask them things like, is Elvis alive or did we land on the moon?

So this is really a very, very high level of agreement. That taxation is, is an important civic duty. It’s something to that people even describe it as patriotic. When citizens are speaking to government officials, they often describe themselves as taxpayers, right? Which is sort of a funny thing to take pride in.

It’s sort of like saying, I didn’t break any laws, right? It’s mandatory to pay taxes and everyone does, but it is a really strong sentiment that Americans hold. And you can actually also see it in something called our tax morale. which is a sort of jargony term. But what it means is that compared to people in other countries, Americans are better about paying their taxes than other countries, right?

We pay more of our taxes and more of it on time. We pay far more taxes than actually can be explained by the level of enforcement of our tax laws that exist. If you ask people what bothers them about taxes, again, survey after survey, after survey will tell you the number one and number two concerns are that corporations and the wealthy aren’t paying their share.

Those always outscore by You know, something like three fifths of Americans pick those, those answers. Then something like 10 percent of Americans will say the amount that they pay. There’s an enormous misconception currently about tax attitudes in this country. And I think that it stems from looking at our politics, but our politics do not represent the attitudes of most Americans.

Emma Varvaloucas: Does this enthusiasm coming from Americans to pay their taxes, is it because they have faith in what the country’s doing, what the government is doing? And I ask that because I am recording here from Greece where everyone knows it’s a huge challenge to get people to pay their taxes. And I always make the assumption is because people don’t trust the government, they don’t think that their money is being spent in good ways.

So I’m wondering if we could do the reverse extrapolation for Americans or is it coming from something else?

Vanessa Williamson: So a trust in government in the United States has declined significantly over many decades. It used to be that most Americans thought they could trust politicians to do what’s right most of the time.

That was true in the sixties and it has sort of sectorally declined since then. Compared to what Americans have, have in the past thought about the quality of their government. It is certainly lower. But by a comparative standard, looking at other countries, Americans have a lot of pride in their country and in the institutions of their government, the sort of version of the government you learned about in the, you know, how a bill becomes a law or, you know, in your high school history class, people have a lot of pride in that.

Zachary Karabell: Most people when asked believe or feel Like there’s something unfair about the tax system whereby the wealthy and the corporations aren’t paying their share. And maybe we could separate those two because it’s not like the tax rates or the way in which we calculate taxes for corporations and the wealthy are the same at all.

Even though they’re lumped in kind of popular imagination as a generalizable, you know, I’m paying too much, they’re paying too little. That perception of the wealthy not paying their fair share. I mean, the wealthy as an aggregate, right at the top, I think 1 percent in the United States. pay about 45 percent of all income taxes in the United States.

I mean, it is a graduated tax system. Now we could argue about whether or not billionaires proportionally are paying enough, but usually when people are talking about the wealthy, I mean, maybe they’re, I don’t know, like illuminate us about this. Are they talking about only the very, very like the thousand people who have close to a billion or a billion dollars?

Or are they sort of, is it like everybody above?

Vanessa Williamson: So when Americans talk about the wealthy, it really depends, and it depends how you ask the question. But if you encourage people to think specifically about the extremely wealthy, the sort of billionaire level of wealth, there’s a lot of concern there that folks in that bracket aren’t paying their share.

And that’s backed by the data. So if you look at our tax code as a whole, it is marginally progressive. The income tax is quite progressive, but our state local taxes tend not to be. So on, on net, if you think about all the taxes people pay, the system is. Marginally progressive across the range of incomes among people who, you know, you know, for most audiences.

So, you know, people who don’t make very much, people who are, you know, a doctor or something like that, it’s, it’s a progressive tax. But at the very top, once you’re talking about people who are making millions and billions, the amount of tax they pay is actually lower than people who have less money.

Zachary Karabell: That’s a product of tax on capital is lower than the tax on income. If the money that you’re living on is primarily a product of gains you’ve made on your money. If the money you live on, even if it’s, you know, a 10 million salary for the CEO of a bank or a fortune 500, if that is primarily income, then it is a progressive system.

Vanessa Williamson: Yeah.

Zachary Karabell: Is that fair?

Vanessa Williamson: That’s right. So if you think about, you know, if we could be taxing wealth or we can be taxing work, right? Yeah. And because we tax work more heavily than wealth, what that means in practice is that people who have to work for a living are, you know, are paying at this higher rate. And it also means that people who have large stores of wealth, which for example, is like a deeply racialized category of people, right?

Like black Americans have lower wealth than white Americans. So when we tax wealth less, we’re also creating sort of racial inequities.

Emma Varvaloucas: I think the common narrative on the left, when this topic gets brought up is like, Republicans, the goddamn Republicans, you know, is that true? I mean, is that like the history?

Like it really is just the Republicans became anti tax. Period. Was that always the case? When did that happen? I’d love to hear a little bit about that development.

Vanessa Williamson: We have an income tax that is a mass tax that is say that most people pay an income tax thanks to World War II, right? This is how Roosevelt decided to raise the kind of money we needed to fight the Nazis.

And so we’ve had a progressive income tax ever since. Before that, there was an income tax, but it was only paid by very rich people. What’s interesting is that between the 40s and the 60s, taxes were actually not a particularly controversial subject between the parties. If you look back at old party platforms, Republicans and Democrats alike, they have a couple of sentences about taxes, but it wasn’t seen as a major dividing line between the parties.

It was a kind of technical issue. People really respected people who had like expertise in how we would handle this very technical, not terribly political issue. And that changes, right? That changes in the 1970s and 80s. As Republicans, as you say, become very dedicated to an anti tax perspective. And that becomes kind of one of the key mobilizers of Republicans.

And also one of the sort of key like rhetorical tropes of, of Republican party politics.

Zachary Karabell: So let me talk a little bit about the, the reason Americans, I think in general are proud to pay taxes because there’s a kind of a generic recognition. that we have this thing called the commons. I mean, even if you don’t, even if there isn’t a recognition of calling it the commons, there’s this idea that there are shared goods that the market doesn’t usually pay for.

Right. But do people actually think that way? Or is it just kind of a more generalizable civic spirit?

Vanessa Williamson: So I don’t think people have a lot of the rhetoric that you’re suggesting, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a sense. of those ideas. The kind of rhetoric of the commons is something that people don’t hear very often, right?

So when I ask people, I did interviews with folks about taxpaying and I asked them, what is taxpaying like? Like what activities is it similar to for you? The frequency with which they tell you helping their neighbors, you know, and they’ll tell you a really specific story. They’ll be like, well, you know, my neighbors across the street, they’re getting older.

So I shovel the snow out of their driveway for them. I help my neighbor like get her groceries up the stairs, you know? And so they tell a story that’s about care and community. And often a very, very personal story about care and community, which was interesting for me because sometimes when you talk to people about political issues, you hear a party line or you hear, you know, an advocate’s language coming out of a person’s mouth, right?

And that’s, you know, evidence that the advocate or the party is doing a great job reaching the public, right? But on this question, they didn’t have an answer in their pocket and they had to think it over as a rule. And, you know, and I thought the sentiments that people brought to bear were really heartwarming, frankly, that they would see this thing that is, you know, this annoying process inconvenient and so much negative rhetoric about it in politics.

But when you ask them what it’s like, what they come up with, you know, is something that really is evidence of your contribution, that you’re doing your part. And, and I think that’s lovely, frankly.

Emma Varvaloucas: That’s so interesting, given how politicized where your tax money goes has become, right? If you talk to people about benefits or welfare or something like that, it’s an intensely toxic discussion.

I mean, what explains that?

Vanessa Williamson: So, I think to some extent, and I’m sure you’ve talked about this many times on your show, we’re living in a very long backlash to the civil rights movement. Welfare has never been popular in the United States. Welfare for poor people has never been popular. You go back to the twenties and thirties, concerns about single mothers are absolutely present there too.

But all that kind of rhetoric, that kind of doubt about whether poor people are deserving is basically on steroids once. Racial resentment is activated, right? So once black Americans have access to ballot across the South, once welfare programs do not discriminate, suddenly the rhetoric about those, those people, poor moms who have too many kids, those people, and they’re not the taxpayers, they’re taking money from the taxpayers.

That rhetoric resonates in a whole new way with a lot of Americans. You know, everyone knows, you know, Reagan’s welfare queen is sort of a classic example of a sort of. You know, he would change the story, the details of the story from speech to speech, but this woman who was defrauding the welfare system he talked about, and he always compared it to the taxpayer, right?

The hardworking taxpayer who, who was chipping in and doing their part. It is a toxin in our politics and we haven’t figured out how to get rid of it.

Zachary Karabell: Emma, if you were to ask, like, A group of people in Athens, what they felt about taxes. Well, what do you think as a sort of anecdotal

Emma Varvaloucas: thing? Oh my God.

Zachary Karabell: She laughs before even answering

Emma Varvaloucas: the question. Trauma, traumatic. I mean, the austerity measures that were put in place, you know, during and after the financial crisis were so intense that people felt, I think, betrayed by the government, betrayed by the EU.

And nowadays I think it’s just a practical lack of ability to pay your taxes, which is why I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this live on the show before, but the Greek government will pay you to pay your taxes on time. There is a discount. I think I got 500 euros last year for paying my taxes on time.

I don’t think there’s this sense of pride at all that Vanessa is talking about. There’s the opposite sense of pride in avoiding your taxes. And then the vigilantes, uh, that, that go around making sure that people, it’s called cutting you a receipt here and make sure they cut you a receipt so that they are reporting that they actually have income to the government.

Cause many people just report that they don’t have any income, but that’s a source of pride that you’re cheating the government because Screw the government.

Zachary Karabell: Yeah. I mean, it is fascinating because obviously, you know, we live in the reality we live in. So if you are a citizen of the United States, if you’re one of the 340 million or so people, and you’re focused largely as human beings do on your own country and your own politics, your own world, you lose sight of what you’re talking about, Vanessa, which is how somewhat unusual it is.

to have this level of compliance in this amount of money collected without primarily the threat of punitive action. I mean, it’s there, right. I mean, people certainly pay their taxes in part because they are aware that there will be negative consequences if they don’t, even if the enforcement capacities of the internal revenue service are, you know, underfunded and, and could potentia you could potentially get away with it for a long time there I do think that the thread of that has effected.

It’s not purely like we’re all just lining up, you know, Hosanna voluntarily doing it, but you know, the point remains if a lot of people just suddenly decided it’s kind of all LA Greece, we’re not gonna do it. It’d be very hard. It would take a long time. to catch up with everyone not paying. I have to say, look, I do think there is a less binary or ideological perspective of, I grew up with very little money.

I live in New York city. I now have a lot of money. I pay very high taxes and I pay, pay them quite, I guess, in line with what you’re saying quite willingly. Like, I think it’s the right thing to do. I think we do live in a commons. I think there are things manifestly that the market does not take care of.

I do object to You know, government inefficiency and incompetence at the level of wasting money that could be used productively. Doesn’t mean that I think the market necessarily would. It just means there should be some expectation that that money if collected is then spent well. So that’s number one. I think there’s a legitimate feeling of like, I don’t want to pay really high taxes if it’s just going to be used badly.

And honestly, and I would, I felt this, you know, on the other side of the equation too. where high taxes on people doing better start to feel that they are driven by punitive desires or to address some sort of generalizable feeling of injustice. I also sort of push back on that. Like, I’m not, I don’t think tax policy is the way to make a statement about general inequities and injustice as a kind of a marker.

And I’m wondering what you feel about those when questions about taxation.

Vanessa Williamson: So one of the most important things about taxes is that it gives you a stake. Right. That feeling you had that you don’t want that money to be wasted is one of the reasons that taxation encourages the development of representation, right?

Taxation without representation, very classic thing in the United States, but it’s true the world over. When people are taxed, what they develop is a desire to be able to have a say over where the money goes, right? And so, you know, you’ve undoubtedly heard of countries that have what’s called a resource curse, right?

They have some sort of natural resource that makes them rich and, but the country doesn’t develop, right? They don’t, they don’t get, the economy is. very limited. They tend to have a lot of poverty and why is that? Well, it’s actually the curse of low taxation because the government can operate outside of accountability.

But when the government has to come to you and tell you, like, these are your taxes and no government can actually enforce the tax system completely. Right? It is always reliant to some degree on voluntary compliance. Then you get to negotiate with the government itself. You get to negotiate with other people who are also paying about what qualifies as what government should do.

And so it is incredibly important that there’s that feeling that, well, I have a say now. That I have a right to say something about what this government’s doing because I chipped it. There’s an amazing old song. Uh, it’s an Irving, Irving Berlin song is written during World War II. When people first had to pay income tax, most people first had to pay income taxes.

People don’t have calculators. They’re rolling out an income tax. It’s there, you know, you’re going to do it on paper. Millions and billions of Americans are gonna have to pay. And by the way, we’re trying to win a war. So they’d better get it right. But Irving Berlin writes this song, I paid my income tax today.


Speaker 4: paid my income tax today. I never felt so proud before to be right there with millions more who paid their income tax today. I’m squared up with the USA.

Vanessa Williamson: And it’s this idea that they did their part. And so then, you know, later in the song, the singer calls out the treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau and says, Careful, Mr.

Henry Jr. That’s my dough. I paid my income tax today. It’s a patriotic song. It’s a piece of propaganda to try and get people to, you know, understand that they had to get this check in the mail, as it were. It really, I think, touches on that idea that you’re talking about, that when you live in a society where you’re paying taxes to a government, it invests you.

And that’s really great. The alternatives are really bad. You know, and this is something that I think people don’t sometimes realize, but despots are quite bad at raising taxes. Representative governments are extremely good at it. There is a strong correlation between the quality of your democracy and the amount of money you can raise.

And you can think about that in the European example, right? Like where are the countries where you raise just phenomenal sums to run enormous welfare states? It’s places where the democracy runs really quite well. So that’s the one thing. The other thing I’ll say on the question of injustice, I think that one of the genuinely negative effects of the anti tax politics of the era in which we live is that it has made it seem like, you know, if you imagine like a legislator opening a toolbox full of policies and they look inside and I swear to God, the only thing they see is taxes.

Like they have no other tools at their disposal. But the reality is, of course, the government is constantly involved in the economy in a million different ways. And so I think taxes became this lightning rod. Republicans are going to cut taxes and Democrats are going to cut taxes, but raise taxes maybe at the very top.

When in fact, regulatory power of the state, like things like the post office, there are so many ways that the government is actually involved in the economy. And we get over focused on taxation, even though it’s my personal issue that I love to talk about. Like, I think maybe other people should talk about something else.

Emma Varvaloucas: You know, it’s such a lightning rod that even the funding to the IRS is a lightning rod now.

We’ve spoken a few times about levels of compliance in the U. S. being higher than in other countries, but what are the actual levels of compliance in the United States? Like, how many people are shirking their taxes and is it the wealthy that are doing it more often? That’s what you often hear right there.

They’ve got fancy accounts and they’ve had to skirt around different laws

Vanessa Williamson: and things like that. So, there is a tax gap, is the technical term for this, and that means, refers to the amount of money the IRS believes it should have collected. That has not come in on time. And it’s something like 17%. It depends on the year.

That’s the missing money. And you, and you might think maybe that’s, you know, a low ball estimate because presumably the IRS doesn’t know about all the money it’s supposed to receive, but doesn’t. Some of that is too well hidden. Let’s say, um, it is absolutely wealthier Americans who are, who are responsible for that.

And, you know, in large part, that’s because people with a regular job. You know, salary job, like me, for example. My taxes are withheld largely. Right? So there’s not as much wiggle room and it’s also simpler for lower income people with wages and salaries to pay the bill on time. Speaking more generally about why people are doing their part.

I think it’s actually the enforcement is really critical, right? And so the most interesting thing. So the IRS does two things, right? It enforces. Yes, but it also does what comes down to customer service. When Right? They help you file your taxes. Right? Do they? Do they? Well, that, but that’s what they’re trying to do this year.

And there’s a really interesting pilot running right now. I think something like 60, 000 Americans have participated. You can use a thing that’s like a TurboTax. It’s a set of screens, right? But it’s public. It’s the IRS’s website and you can fill in your taxes on a free public service. And so one of the really interesting things to watch looking forward.

is whether that gets to grow right into something that any American can use, whether it becomes what’s called pre populated. That is to say that the IRS puts in the numbers that they have from your, you know, your W 2s and your, all the pay, all the paperwork they’re receiving from your employers, puts those numbers in for you along with your name and you know, how many kids, you know, they could, they could do a lot of the work.

And so if we could move to a system where like that, we could really massively reduce the amount of hassle that Americans face each year and also save people quite a lot of money.

Zachary Karabell: Although it was interesting to hear over the past couple of years, some of the opposition to the IRS developing these tools, many of which just were odd lightning rods for other issues, there was a whole privacy concern, like, Oh my God, the IRS, you know, like around this, which is somewhat ludicrous on the face of it, because they have all this data anyway.

So the privacy concerns made no sense, but it became a thing like, Oh, I don’t know if I want the IRS to To pre populate my form, you’re like, well, it’s not like they’re pulling the data. They have the data. They’re just filling out a form for you. So there was that issue, right? Then there was the creeping socialism argument.

Like somehow it was going to be big brother doing it for you rather than I suppose, paying TurboTax or QuickBooks or, you know, EF Hutton to do it for you. Another one that made very little sense, but it touched on all these other kind of emotional issues that people have with government. And then that they were going to be incorrect, right?

They were, they were going to take more money than should be taken without also recognizing that you do actually get to correct the form. It’s not like they just send you the form, which in a lot of European countries, they just, you know, they take the money, right? You have to then appeal for, excuse me, you took too much and it takes however long to get it back.

I don’t know. I just thought that was, it was kind of a fascinating set of objections to this program. And it’s, it’s been ready to launch right for years and it kept getting one objection after another to it. Do we have any sense how it’s going or is it still too soon to tell?

Vanessa Williamson: Well, yes. So to begin with, you know, the IRS has talked about doing this for literally decades, right?

Obviously with the sort of advancement to online filing. That made this process far more plausible, right? But they’ve been talking about since even before most people would have had an internet connection. So yes, pre populating forms is something that’s been on people’s minds forever. It seems sort of obvious, right?

Why are you asking every individual to do something when you know the answer to the question that you’re going to ask them? And you’re just sort of inconveniencing people. Yeah, so they’ve been thinking about it forever. The evidence so far is that it’s going remarkably well. They fill out the form and it seems to work.

And the main complaint is, where has this been all this time? Like, why, why wasn’t this here 20 years ago? What has been going on now that I know this could be done? I can’t believe that they haven’t done it earlier. It’s very reasonable in a sense. So far, it seems to me have been going very well, but the big test will have been the weekend before test.

Because that’s when all the procrastinators out there are getting the job done. And so you might see a big spike in it. I’m sure that at the IRS, they are stress testing the system as we speak to try and get that done.

Zachary Karabell: It is definitely true that starting under Obama and continue under Trump, the corporate tax rates were lowered.

So there has been this effort to kind of create a global minimum, basically prevent companies from easily shopping for where they’re going to pay taxes. I mean, this doesn’t do any good if you’re a A hardware store operator on the corner, it’s really a multinational issue. That is something that I feel gets missed in the debate.

  1. S. corporate tax policy is not globally in isolation, right? And that’s, that’s why I feel like Americans still probably think too much of themselves, meaning think too much of their place in the firmament, that there is a world out there. where business does in fact try to find the best deal. Do you have any idea how people like resonate with that?

What if that’s ever brought to the fore?

Vanessa Williamson: So Americans are very angry if you ask them about the concept of offshoring upset, both about the offshoring of jobs and about the offshoring of taxes. Uh, these are both concerns that people have in their minds. This is a concern that extends to individual taxes as well.

That, you know, there’s a sort of sense of. Oh, is it worth it to even try and raise taxes on rich people? They’ll just find a new loophole. Their lawyers are going to be better than the IRS’s lawyers. They can pay infinite money for this and that sort of thing. So I think there is, you know, there is real concern that on some level it’s just too hard.

The investment in enforcement, will pay off six to one is the conservative estimate of how much money you get back from raising enforcement rates on wealthy individuals, both because there’s a lot of money there and because it has the deterrence factor is very serious. Enforcement does in fact work.

You can’t do it for everyone all the time. We need to have a voluntarily compliant system. But, but yeah, no, I think people are concerned that the, the government isn’t in a position to actually enforce the laws or could pass laws that simply result in offshoring you’re talking about. Yes.

Emma Varvaloucas: And then is the, how we raise the enforcement rate question answered just by the, we need to fund the IRS?

Vanessa Williamson: By and large, yes. They were operating with the number of employees that they had in the fifties. We were a much smaller country with a much simpler economy. And this is partly because Congress really pushed for greater audits of earned income tax credit recipients, which is the fundable tax credit that goes to low income Americans.

So they pushed for greater concern about, you know, concerns about fraud in that, in that area. And so what happened was the IRS was auditing poor people the same way they were auditing millionaires. Because it’s easy to audit the poor, right? You send them a letter and you know, they don’t have a lawyer.

Again, that had really racially disparate impacts, right? The thing that enfor, you know, raising enforcement funds can do is mean that they can hire the kind of talent that they need to enforce the tax code for people who have lawyers or people who have accountants. It, it has real equity implications, uh, that sometimes get lost.

Right? This is about ensuring that the government isn’t just a government that applies, you know, penalties to the poor, but in fact it obliges the rich to follow the law as well.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah, it’s weird because it doesn’t sound like a sexy political topic, but it like, kind of is a really sexy political topic.

Vanessa Williamson: Look, you’re speaking to the choir here on how interesting taxes are.

Emma Varvaloucas: I have a question that’s completely unrelated to taxes, so we’re going to whiplash us a little bit toward the end of the conversation. Hopefully people don’t mind. You have some really interesting new research out about climate migration and about the millions of people that will likely have to migrate due to climate change, which brings to mind for me a lot of climate Apocalypse Images.

But the interesting thing about the research was that it was oddly uplifting, pulling on the history of the Great Migration and some of the surprising knock on effects from that. So I was just wondering if you could just tell us a little bit about that.

Vanessa Williamson: It’s really hard to hit the right tone when you’re talking about climate, right?

Because the situation we’re facing is obviously dire. Like that’s indisputable for many, many people. This will be, this, the coming years will be very difficult. And one of the things that that’s going to result in is that people are going to move, right? Move from places that are too hot, move from places that don’t have the kind of rain they used to have, move from places that are getting too much rain, move from places that are flooding or hurricanes, all these things, right?

You can imagine that we’re going to see really substantial migration within the United States. So a question I’ve been asking myself is, well, what do we know about really substantial migration within the United States? I spent some time thinking about the great migration, right? This is the. movement of millions of African Americans out of the South, the Jim Crow South, and into the North and the West, primarily in the, in the, often in the big cities, right?

And it’s an enormous population shift, right? Millions and millions of people. And it happens relatively quickly over, you know, a few decades. And the consequences of that are enormous. Now there are consequences that are deeply troubling that continue to plague our politics today, right? The white flight, the war on crime, redlining, there are a whole set of things.

That, you know, are the kind of policies that I could imagine, you know, coming into play again. But the other thing the Great Migration did was allow for the civil rights movement to occur. For a moment, let’s step back. Let’s imagine it’s 1925 and you believe in racial justice. It is not a good time, right?

The Klan, the second Klan is, uh, you know, is peaking. The Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, the party of freed people, doesn’t exist in the American South. Those are one party autocracies. The Democratic Party, people who are progressive on the economy, Woodrow Wilson, believe in a progressive income tax, for example, were Often profoundly racist, right?

Wilson famously screamed birth of a nation, right? The movie celebrating the origins of the Klan at the White House. So things look pretty dire. And if you’re going to ask, if you said, you know, if you imagine you, you know, political observer in 1925, what’s the president’s party for the next president that signs a civil rights legislation?

Well, I think people would say, well, I don’t think that’s going to happen. But if I had to guess, I suppose the Republican party is still the party of Lincoln. Perhaps they’ll do it. And you’re like, no, no, it’s not. It’s not the Republicans. And I genuinely think that a pundit, you know, jazz age pundit, as it were, would think for a moment and say, well, I guess the communists are going to win because the communist party opposed racial segregation, right?

They’re like, well, it seems unlikely we’re going to have a communist president. But if you ask me, it’s not the Republicans who are going to do voting rights. Well, I guess, I guess there’s only one other choice. But the reality is the Democrats, as we all know, of course, the Democrats desegregate the military under Truman, the Democrats.

You know, Johnson signed civil rights and voting rights laws and first black president of the Democrat. How does that happen? How does the democratic party, the party of Jim Crow, the party of Woodrow Wilson, right? How does that party, the solid set, how does that party become the party of civil rights?

It’s because black Americans moved to the cities in the north and two things happened. Black Americans recognized that they had political power there and started to exercise it. And Democrats who were used to losing in the north in places like Pennsylvania, you know, they weren’t all racial liberals.

But they recognized that there were voters there that they could appeal to. What you start to see is large swaths of black Americans who had traditionally voted Republican. Turning Lincoln’s portrait to the wall is one of the ways it was described at the time, right? These were dedicated Republican voters, but they started voting for the Democrats because they saw in the New Deal something that was going to help working people.

Black Americans surely were. And they also, there is. movement in the industrial union movement, unlike the previous unions have been extremely committed to segregation, to exclusion of black Americans. The industrial movement union movement looked at these factories that were 25 percent black and recognized that if they wanted to win, they were going to have to be multiracial.

And so through the union movement, through city politics, the democratic party is converted on what was at least in the South, the most fundamental plank of their politics, right. They move from the party of segregation, the party of Jim Crow, to the party of civil rights. And to me, if you’re thinking to yourself, We’re looking down the barrel with climate change, right?

And that’s, there’s no way to pretend that’s not what’s happening. And you’re thinking about these mass migrations and you start to have apocalyptic thoughts, which I think we all do. You could think to yourself that we don’t know what migration can cause, but it can cause genuinely amazing progress. I love that.

It’s so unexpected. It is, right? I think it’s a story that deserves to be told. The people who are involved in it are, you know, sort of amazing, you know, underappreciated Americans. And also because I think that it can be so easy to give up and that’s not actually an option.

Zachary Karabell: You know, it also reminds me as we, as we wrap up, and that’s a great note to wrap up on that forecasting the future of any of these parties is also really, really difficult.

I have a 21 year old son who’s trying to kind of figure out just there’s aspects of both parties that are deeply unappealing as I think that’s true for most Americans. Right. And thinking like you have to make this choice and. Without the awareness of like 20 years from now, we have no idea what the political alignment’s going to look like for either the Democrats or the Republicans, kind of all of what you just said.

I mean, if you’d sort of asked what was in the 1930s, what the future of these two parties were, you wouldn’t necessarily have come out where you were in the 1960s or let alone what you said from, you know, the Wilsonian time. So things change, they change demographically, they change geographically, they change culturally and often for the better, you know, sometimes for the worse, of course.

Anyway, I want to thank you for your observations, comments, work, you know, this is one of these like hiding in plain sight issues, you know, is, is vastly important to understand the American polity. And I think what a lot of your work does is indicate what so many of us continue to pound the table about, that there’s these huge swaths of kind of citizen consensus in the United States with this overlay of just intense, bitter.

Tribal anti noian partisanship that we focus entirely on and we forget the degree to which there’s this very historically odd and globally still unusual consensus, that whole series of things in the United States. But if all you did was pay attention to the rhetoric and the noise of an election year, you would have absolutely no sense of that.

Right. And your work right points very powerfully too. You know, there’s a lot. I guess, you know, for lack of a better cliche, there’s a lot that unites us and maybe more that unites us than divides us. So thank you.

Vanessa Williamson: The views of people are often far more reasonable than the politics we get. And that is on the one hand, very encouraging and optimistic.

On the other hand, it asks us, what do we need to do about our systems so that they can represent our people?

Zachary Karabell: Right. Maybe we’ll, uh, have you back for that conversation, but in the interim, thank you for this one.

Emma Varvaloucas: Thanks Vanessa. Thank you.

Zachary Karabell: So Emma, I do find a lot of Uh, Vanessa’s work heartening in its way. I mean, I, I, I do share that feeling of I’ve yet to get to a point where I resent paying taxes.

I do occasionally, as I said, don’t like either the feeling that those taxes are. being done as a political or moral statement rather than how do we improve our commons, but there is this kind of odd, you know, and I think you moving to a society where that’s completely, well, it’s not maybe not completely alien, largely alien as an idea as it is in many countries is something we lose sight of a lot in the United States.

Emma Varvaloucas: Well, it’s interesting what she was talking about. I mean, I wouldn’t call Greece resource cursed, but there is this kind of Curse, I guess, or trap that, uh, government falls into, which is that. People don’t want to pay taxes because they don’t see that their government is doing well for them, a la, you know, Scandinavia.

But then the government can’t do well for them either if they don’t collect any taxes. So that’s the trap that Greece has been in. You know, I think they’re kind of climbing out of it now, but it’s hard. It’s hard to, to escape that vicious circle and it can work the other way. It can be a positive feedback loop, but how you go from vicious cycle, not circle, vicious cycle to positive feedback loop.

I don’t, I don’t know. What’s that path.

Zachary Karabell: Someone did this study, I guess around the time we were talking about when there was, was there going to be a Grexit? Was Greece going to crash out of the European Union? I’m going to get the numbers wrong, but directionally, they’re right. There was. Something like 30 people in Athens who declared that they had a swimming pool because there was some property tax that came with swimming pool.

And then there was some aerial shot saying there’s like 8, 000 pools, you know, and it was just a perfect iteration of, you know, whatever people were doing in terms of what they were declaring versus what reality was, was that a huge disconnect? And that was part of the problem, right? You know?

Emma Varvaloucas: Oh, that’s not the least of it.

I mean, at least those are individuals. I mean, you have businesses here, like you’ll go to a Taverna, right? Lots of businesses were declaring that they had zero income and yet you could go and have a lunch and you paid them for your meal, but they were reporting zero income for years, you know? So it’s gotten better.

It’s gotten better. And sometimes I feel like I’m too negative about Greece on this podcast. Maybe we should have a positive Greece episode. No,

Zachary Karabell: but I mean, I think that, that attitude, I mean, Greece is better than, I mean, there are numerous Sub Saharan African countries. There are, you know, until recently, some Asian countries, not, not the East Asian ones, which just can’t collect taxes.

They don’t even have a tax collection, functional group to collect taxes. And, you know, that’s, as you just said, it’s the catch 22 of. If you want more state capacity, you have to pay for it. Well, how do you pay for it? You have to collect taxes. Why do you collect taxes if you can’t collect taxes and that, you know, and then you look for foreign aid or you look for other stuff.

So, you know, it’s a, I think we forget just how not just affluent the United States is, but in that sense, how affluent our government agencies are. And particularly, I think the left misses that in the United States, because the left always feels that everything is started from money. But relative to almost everywhere in the world, other than Scandinavian countries, we’re not really starved for money.

I mean, we, even these agencies are astonishingly well funded relative to correlates around the globe, maybe not relative to what they should be or how they should be. And that too, I think is obscured in our political debates, you know, even low tax Americans are still. It’s a very well-funded public sector in the United States, no matter what part of the political spectrum you’re on.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah. I think this is just so hard to go and like look at like the, like why is there no main page that’s like, okay, the budget for the National Institute of Health is this many billions, you know, the whole system is so byzantine that I think a lot of people don’t even know exactly how the National Institute Institute of Health relates to the CDC and this, that, and the other thing.

But if there is some kind of like, you know, common page, it’s like, here’s the whole budget breakdown, at least on the, you know, high level thing, that would help in my opinion. So, well,

Zachary Karabell: I mean, that exists. It’s just, no one knows where to go to find it. I don’t know, like go into Google and type in, you know, breakdown of the federal budget.

I’m sure it’s there under the tax policy or whatever else. Look, infographic, federal budget.

Emma Varvaloucas: Does it have, I mean, how much of a breakdown does it have?

Zachary Karabell: Medicaid, Medicare, non defense, defense. Yeah. But that’s like

Emma Varvaloucas: super high level. I mean, like a slide. Yeah. Oh, there. Okay. All right. We’re proving my point with this quick Google search, I think.

Zachary Karabell: Other is 520 billion.

Emma Varvaloucas: And it was a third party that put the infographic together, right? Wasn’t like that was the government. I’m sure.

Zachary Karabell: Well, no, that was, that was the congressional budget office. Oh, that was.

Emma Varvaloucas: Okay. Okay. Well, the other, the other categories are really helpful.

Zachary Karabell: Tax policy center. How does it fit?

You know, that’s like discretionary mandatory. I mean, you’re right. There’s not a great one agency by agency. You have to, you have to really want to find it. Yeah. I

Emma Varvaloucas: need to put in some work.

Zachary Karabell: You have to put in some work, it’s absolutely true. Okay, news of the week.

Emma Varvaloucas: All right. All right. So I am here with the good news of the week.

Unfortunately, Zachary is not going to be with us for this section, but he is going to be back next week. So let’s start with some interesting statistics about England and Wales. Where 70 percent of people think that crime has gone up in the last few years. But in a similar story to the U S where a lot of people think crime has gone up and actually crime has gone down despite a little bit of a up and down situation during the pandemic, this article in the conversation, which is really interesting, says that violence, burglary, and car crime have been declining for the last 30 years.

Close to 90%. So it’s virtually disappeared the rise that they had during the late 90s, like many other countries. This drop in violence also includes domestic violence, other violence against women. Anti social behavior has also declined. And the article talks about how now most of the crime that’s going on in England and Wales is actually fraud and computer misuse.

Essentially, like better security measures in cars and malls, just kind of across society, has made people less interested in doing crimes and they’ve just kind of moved to cyber crimes. But still, you know, crime, crime overall is down. So good for England and Wales. Hopefully public perception catches up with the stats there because that is a wild, wild decline.

So let’s move on to Japan. We had this story featured in the newsletter recently, kind of as entertainment value. A story in late April circulated around the internet about the Yakuza, which is Japan’s kind of mafia. If you’ve seen Tokyo Vice or any of the, like, classic Yakuza movies, you know these Japanese gangsters that have suits, a chain, dark sunglasses.

Tattoos everywhere. Sometimes they cut off parts of their finger, either as an initiation ritual or punishment. So those guys, if you have any conception in your head, they had a high ranking member of one of the Yakuza gangs arrested for stealing something. What he was stealing was Ponymon cards. So this article kind of, you know, made the rounds around the internet that the Yakuza have been demoted.

They have fallen to, uh, such an extent that they have now been reduced to stealing Pokemon cards. But behind a kind of, like, funny entertainment value of, you know, that one commenter posted, Oh, instead of catching them all, he got caught. Behind that is actually a very interesting story about how, um, the Japanese government actually had this tough on crime approach that really worked for organized crime in Japan.

Instead of making it illegal to be part of the Yakuza, they essentially made participating in modern life for Yakuza members so difficult. that people just stopped wanting to join the Yakuza. Before, they were stealing Pokemon cards and doing things like illegal sea cucumber fishing, which they’re doing nowadays.

The Yakuza were highly involved in drug trafficking, sex trafficking, real estate scams, all kinds of illegitimate and legitimate seedy business. And the Japanese government had, you know, really gotten tired of this. So in the 90s, they passed a series of laws that were like anti gang laws, but the more interesting ones.

Where a series of ordinances called the social exclusion ordinances, I believe, they couldn’t buy a car and they couldn’t rent a house or an apartment. They couldn’t have a cell phone because they disallowed the cell phone companies from signing contracts with any Yakuza member. They couldn’t apply for a credit card, they couldn’t open a bank account, and they also instituted fines and other violations for interacting with a Yakuza member, either as a private citizen or as a company.

So they essentially irritated the Yakuza out of existence because people didn’t want to join up anymore. Back in the early millennium, the Yakuza numbered at 90, 000. It’s now under 25, 000 and the average age of the Yakuza is a bit over 50. So they’re essentially going to age and die out. Very interesting phenomenon.

Haven’t heard of that approach being used anywhere else in the world. Probably will come a day pretty soon that the Yakuza are not a thing anymore. So we’ll only seeing them in the movies and TV. So, moving onward from crime, Hannah Richie from Our World in Data, and if you aren’t familiar with the website Our World in Data, it’s a really fantastic place to go check out stats from literally the entire world.

She’s a researcher there. She has a great new post about the world has probably passed peak pollution. So this is really a trend that’s being carried by rich countries. Pollution in lower and middle income countries is still increasing. But the process of by which countries industrialize, get richer, pollute everything, and then figure out how to drop their pollution is something that’s already been figured out by richer countries.

That means that lower and middle income countries are going to go through that process a lot faster. And so we think that we’ve reached our zenith and we’re only going to come down from here. So this might, like I said before, it might be a different story regionally, but we’re, we’re moving into a world where we’ve figured out how to deal with pollution.

It means a lot of lives are going to be saved. A lot of people actually die every year because of pollution. So this is a good trend. So last but not least, we are going to move to Brazil. where deforestation in the Amazon has hit a five year low. Conservation efforts essentially began in the 80s and 90s when President Lula, who’s the president now, he was also the president back around 2010.

Deforestation was at an all time low from when it began anyway, obviously before it began it was lower than. But it was at an all time low. The Lulu’s kit was the left office and Bolsonaro, Jair Bolsonaro, the very same came in. And around 2014, deforestation in Amazon skyrocketed. So Lulu came back into office in January 2023.

And since then, there’s been a pretty precipitous decline. So we’re at a point right now that the rise that occurred between 2014 and 2023. So during the tenure of Bolsonaro. He’s reversed half of the deforestation increase that occurred during those years. So still not quite at the all time low that was happening, you know, between 2010, 2014, but they are moving there extremely quickly.

In fact, I’m not even sure how they’re moving this quickly. It’s a bit of a contentious issue in Brazil because of course, a lot of people rely on the Amazon, particularly clearing the Amazon to do various different economic activities. Hopefully Lula is also doing a good job making sure that those people are being taken care of, that there’s space for them in the economy that doesn’t involve clearing and logging the Amazon.

But overall for the world, the Amazon used to be the largest carbon sink in the world. It is no longer because of all the deforestation that has taken place. We’d love to see it become the world’s largest carbon sink. Again, you know, this is just one piece in the very, very big puzzle of climate change.

So it’s good to see it moving in the right direction. I hope that you enjoyed a little good news tour and we will see you next week. Thank you so much for listening as always. Thank you to Zachary, even though he’s not here. And thank you so much to everyone for spending your time with us. Do you have any thoughts, concerns, things you would love for us to talk about, things that you would love for us to stop talking about?

You can email us at hello at theprogressnetwork. org. And of course, feel free to sign up for our newsletter at theprogressnetwork. org. All right. Thank you so much.

Zachary Karabell: What Could Go Right? is produced by The Podglomerate. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro. Marketing by The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to subscribe to the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit Thanks for listening.


Meet the Hosts

Zachary Karabell

Emma Varvaloucas


Progress and Backlash

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